Video: Clinton warms to Russia

updated 3/6/2009 6:18:41 PM ET 2009-03-06T23:18:41

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, declaring a fresh start for relations with Russia, predicted Friday that the two nations would complete a new arms reduction treaty by year's end and find common ground on other major issues as well.

Upbeat and often smiling, both Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after two hours of talks that they had reached no new formal agreements. But they also said both sides would develop a working plan to forge an agreement to reduce the two nations’ formidable nuclear arsenals.

The aim is to have plans for proceeding on arms talks ready by the time President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meet at an economic summit in England in early April, according to State Department officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the arrangements were still being worked out.

Whatever the logistics, both Clinton and Lavrov expressed confidence in the result.

“We intend to have an agreement by the end of the year,” Clinton told a news conference after talks and a working dinner with her Russian counterpart.

Asked by reporters during a joint news conference if it was realistic to expect a new pact in time to replace the START I treaty by the time it expires in December, Clinton was emphatic.

“This is of the highest priority,” she said.

Said Lavrov: “I am certain that it is fully within our powers to reach a common denominator and maybe even come out with a plus for our strategic relations on the issues of both START and missile defense.”

Russia hails 'very positive signals'
Missile defense has been a major irritant for the two nations, and Russia underscored that issue on Friday. In remarks broadcast before the Clinton-Lavrov talks ended, a spokesman for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said a U.S. missile shield plan for Eastern Europe would have to be either scrapped or reworked. Still, Russian officials in Moscow hailed “very positive signals” from the new U.S. administration.

Clinton and Lavrov acknowledged difficult sticking points remained on other issues, from disagreements over U.S. involvement in Kosovo and the Russian invasion of Georgia, to differing stances over how to pressure Iran on its drive for nuclear weapons.

Clinton noted “frank exchanges in areas where we disagree.” And Lavrov said “it would be an exaggeration to say that we agreed on everything.”

But the Russian added that “we agreed that on all questions, including those on which we have differences, we will work in the spirit of partnership, honestly and openly.”

Both diplomats echoed U.S. officials’ talk of “resetting” the U.S.-Russian relationship. Clinton presented Lavrov with a gift “reset” button and Lavrov responded that “together with Hillary, we did manage to press that red button.”

Clinton described the talks with Lavrov as a “fresh start” in resetting relations between the former Cold War foes. The relationship had become increasingly strained by the end of the Bush administration.

She said the discussions touched on the two nations’ mutual interest in advancing nuclear disarmament and on growing concerns about Iranian nuclear development and instability in Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan, Lavrov concurred, saying: “We consider it our common goal to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.” In its former Soviet incarnation, Russia occupied Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, but retreated as continuing battles took a harsh toll on its army.

Finding common ground
Clinton also expressed gratitude for Russian willingness to allow U.S. non-lethal supply shipments to cross its borders to Afghanistan.

Lavrov said that he and Clinton found common ground in confronting the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, even if the U.S. and Russia are pursuing different and sometimes-conflicting strategies.

“We looked at the situation with nuclear weapons nonproliferation, including as it applies to Iran and to the issue of the Korean peninsula,” Lavrov said. “I am certain that in the near future we will try to come to some kind of agreements, some results, that would enable us to bring a political-diplomatic resolution of these issues closer.”

Lavrov conceded the two sides were at odds over Russian’s sales of missiles to Iran, some of which have reportedly ended up in the arsenals of Hamas and Hezbollah and then been fired at Israel. But he insisted there was even maneuvering room to work out that issue.

“We supply our partners non-destabilizing defensive types of weapons,” Lavrov said. “We want our partners to behave with equal restraint in their supplies to other countries.”

As for U.S. and Russian arms, Obama has said he is willing to engage Moscow in talks on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons below the 1,700-to-2,200 limit that was set in a deal signed in 2002 by President George W. Bush and Putin.

More on Russia   |  Clinton

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